England must make World Cup run the start of something big, not another false dawn
MOSCOW -- For England, this was so much better than anyone could have possibly expected. But in the end, it wasn't enough.
That's the problem with progress. People will always want more and, having been within 22 minutes of playing in their first World Cup final since 1966, England must now prepare for a third-place playoff against Belgium in Saint Petersburg on Saturday, when they really wanted to be playing in Moscow 25 hours later.
Croatia, in the end, were simply too good and too streetwise in the semifinal and their 2-1 victory was deserved, despite England's impressive start to the game.
But defeat still stings for Gareth Southgate and his overachieving players.
"Did we feel we would be in this position?" Southgate asked after the game. "Realistically, I don't think any of us did.
"But when you get to this point and play as well as we did in the first half, you want to take those opportunities in life, so the dressing room is a very difficult place at the moment."
England's shortcomings, the fault lines that have consumed them long before the semifinal stage in previous tournaments, remain the same as ever. Southgate has done well to mask his team's flaws and give them a renewed sense of confidence and identity, but the problems that cost them against Croatia were the same that almost handed victory to Colombia in the round of 16.
When England don't have the ball, they struggle against teams who are comfortable with it. Few are as accomplished as Croatia, even when they are on the brink of exhaustion following two successive penalty shootouts, and as England ran out of ideas, Luka Modric was able to pick holes in their defensive lines time and again.
England don't have a Modric -- few teams do -- but they have to learn how to control games better against top-class teams. Had Southgate's players faced a Brazil, France, Uruguay or Portugal before this stage, they might not have made it so far because the lack of service to Harry Kane would really have told against such high-quality opposition.
Southgate is keen to remind people that England's squad was the least experienced in Russia. This journey to the semifinal will certainly help his players and make them more confident in the future, but their lack of nous at this level did show against Croatia.
"We played extremely well in the first half, given the size of the game, and I was really pleased with the way we controlled possession," Southgate said. "But when you're in charge of the game and have the chances we had, you have to take a second goal at that point.
"We had a little less composure with the ball in the second half, and maybe that was a consequence of being ahead with the least experienced team in the finals, with an opportunity to get to a World Cup final.
"Croatia came on strong and they have some outstanding players and some huge experience."
Southgate has rebuilt the England team since their abject failure at Euro 2016, when Roy Hodgson's side were humiliated by Iceland in the round of 16. It's a more vibrant team, one with greater self-belief. Southgate has found a formation that works, and his defence is one that can give England a solid platform for the future, but the midfield needs work and new players.
Jordan Henderson has been one of England's best players in Russia, but he was asked to do the job of two men at times. He is more of a destroyer than a creator, as is his understudy Eric Dier, so Southgate must find a way to support them with a player who can pick a pass and dictate the tempo of a game.
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Phil Foden, the Manchester City teenager, is highly regarded and a potential star of Euro 2020, but he has to play for his club before he can think of representing his country.
The building blocks are certainly in place, however, and that is not something that England have been able to say for many years.
"It's clear to everybody the progress that's been made in terms of the level of performance and togetherness of the group," Southgate said. "There are a lot of things that have been hugely positive for us. Experiences we've come through, that an inexperienced team have to go through to get better.
"This is a hugely different journey from two years ago, but to become a winning team, there are hurdles we have to overcome.
"Tonight was a wonderful opportunity for us and you can't guarantee those opportunities come again, but we want to be a team who are hitting quarterfinals, semifinals and finals. That's what we aim to do in the long term.
"Now we have a new benchmark, a new level of expectation, a new scenario. Many of these players have come of age on an international stage. I couldn't be prouder with what they've done.
"But we're not perfect, not the finished article, and there is a long way for us to go."
And that is now the challenge: to make the progress of Russia 2018 the start of something big, rather than another false dawn.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_